Review: The Rainmaker (The James Downing Theatre)

  
  

An uneven portrayal of Classic Americana

  
  

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The James Downing Theatre presents
   
The Rainmaker
  
Written by N. Richard Nash
Directed by Floyd A. May
at The John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $5-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s so much to both love and be disappointed in James Downing Theatre’s revival of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker. Director Floyd A. May’s set design (co-designed with Joshua Dlouhy) is crammed with authentic props that create a truthful tone for a hearty Depression Era melodrama. Unfortunately, the set is just too jumbled and cramped to accommodate the play’s scenes, from the Curry family home, to the sheriff’s office, to the barn where the visiting Rainmaker, Bill Starbuck (Michael Rashid) stays the night. May’s direction also varies over the course of the play, from flat and pedestrian to vivid, exciting, touching and inspiring. Watching this Rainmaker is like taking a journey down a bumpy country road. One is sure to hit dull and dusty pockets. But turn the bend and, suddenly, the beauty of Nash’s morality tale about retaining faith while never eschewing plain reality zooms into full view.

Rainmaker34bH.C. Curry (in a warm and gracious performance by David Kravitz) is the play’s gentle, wise, observant patriarch, seeing his farm and family through the worst drought in years. They suffer from a drought of the spirit as well as the parched land their livelihood depends on and Lizzie (Liz Hoffman), his unmarriageable daughter, stands as its quintessential symbol.

Intelligent, industrious, and truthful to a fault, Lizzie can’t get a man–if getting a man means surrendering her brain and playing a vacuous, empty-headed flirt. Hoffman has regaled Chicago audiences with her portrayal of Lala in Last Night of Ballyhoo and even put sublime silliness into her shlock comedy role as Vicki in The Well of Horniness. Here, however, her performance starts and stalls in authentically portraying a 1930s woman whose primary goal in life is to fall in love, get married and have a family; whose biggest fear is that her plain looks and plain talk with men will keep her from those goals. Nash’s writing never strays from traditional gender roles and perhaps now they seem too staid and unyielding to seem credible. But they were once fiercely imbedded in American culture. The terror of becoming an old maid once had, not just emotional consequences, but also social and economic ones. A consistent, fully embodied Lizzie still requires total investment in that old-school frame of mind.

Even though the play focuses on the Curry family’s attempts to find Lizzie a man, it’s just as much about how its men respond to the vicissitudes of love and relationship. As File, Shannon Parr brings every ounce of proud, stoic testosterone to the loner deputy that H.C. and his sons, Noah (Michael Mejia) and Jim (Micah Fortenberry), pursue for Lizzie’s prospective mate. But he’s just as much an emblem for how masculine pride can get in the way of love. Jim, on the other hand, has no problem finding love, regardless of how his brother Noah disparages his affair with Snookie, a local country hottie. Mejia has no problem pulling off Noah’s hardnosed approach to life but could use a little more nuance to prevent his character from devolving into caricature. Fortenberry, on the other hand, resiliently displays all Jim’s turns of exuberance, joy and playfulness, counterbalanced with his confusion, frustration, dismay and exasperation over Noah’s disapproval of him.

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That leaves Bill Starbuck, the wild-eyed dreamer who throws everything into temporary chaos. Much as I wanted to buy into Rashid’s presentation of Starbuck in miracle worker/con man mode, much of this aspect of his performance just didn’t read. Selling the Curry family on the notion that he can bring rain is too forced. Instead, Rashid is far more powerful in Starbuck’s toned down, intimate moments connecting with Lizzie. In fact, their barn scene together is pure tenderness. Just as tender is H.C. trying to tell Noah why Lizzie must have her moment with Starbuck. If there’s one truly transgressive moment in The Rainmaker, it’s that one.

Unevenness hampers James Downing Theatre’s production, but the show is not without intense moments of beauty, humor and humanity. It even throws in a little excitement with an excellently choreographed fight scene. Now if only it could be pulled together in one vibrant whole. Certainly the promise is there.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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Review: The Original Grease (American Theater Company)

  
  

Now extended through August 21st!!

 

This show %#&*ing rocks!

  
  

(L to R) Carol Rose, Tony Clarno, Jessica Diaz, Robert Colletti, Kelly Davis Wilson, Adrian Aguilar and Tyler Ravelson in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

  
American Theater Company presents
   
The Original Grease
   
Book/Music/Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed by PJ Paparelli
at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $45-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Foul-mouthed, raunchy, and absolutely not for children (although I’d think my parents were the coolest if they took me to this), American Theater Company’s The Original Grease is how Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s classic musical was meant to be seen. Forget the Bee Gees and the Australian accents, this Grease is northwest Chicago all the way, and ATC’s production takes pride in its urban heritage, presenting a grittier, yet still effervescently youthful Rydell High Class of 1960. What surprised me most about The Original Grease wasn’t the profanity or sexual explicitness, but how much more of an ensemble piece the stage version is than the movie. Sandy (Kelly Davis Wilson) and Danny (Adrian Aguilar) romance is the spine of the plot, but the relationships between the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies are fleshed out considerably. Minor characters like Patty Simcox (Alaina Mills) and Miss Lynch (Peggy Roeder) even get their own solos.

Adrian Aguilar and Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerThe show begins at the Class of 1960’s 50-year reunion, where a gleeful/wasted Patricia Simcox Honeywell (Susan Fay) invites the audience to take a trip down memory lane with a slide show of nostalgic Chicago locales that seques into the main action of the play in 1959. Shout outs to Palmer House, Carson’s, and Jewel root the show firmly in Chicago, and “Foster Beach” replaces “Summer Nights” as the recap of Sandy and Danny’s summer tryst. The new (old?) emphasis on the city firmly establishes the setting, but also alters the dynamic within the group of high schoolers. You get the impression that these are kids that have grown up together for most of their lives, and Sandy Dumbrowski’s transformation becomes less of a unique experience, but more of a typical teenage transformation as a way to fit in.

Above all else, The Original Grease succeeds because of the friendship cultivated among the group, a sense of camaraderie that climaxes in a spectacular a cappella arrangement of “We Go Together” at the end of Act One. As the gang pounds beer and passes cigarettes in the Cook County Forest Preserve they break into the film’s closing number, and the nonsensical lyrics have a different impact when they are the drunk ramblings of a group of teenagers. I’m a sucker for rain on stage, so the end of the number his all the right notes, and the ensemble’s unaccompanied vocals blend flawlessly. I wish that Sandy were in the number so Willis could add her brassy vocals to the song, but it’s just another way The Original Grease makes the audience encourage Sandy’s transformation.

Willis’ clean-cut appearance suggest the naïve Sandy that the audience is familiar with, but she shows her character’s fiery side well before her final metamorphosis. The moments where Sandy loses her temper make her change more believable but also make her a worthy opponent for Aguilar, who perfectly captures the lovable asshole vibe of the cocky Danny Zuko. Danny isn’t a very sympathetic character, and he never really pines after Sandy in this production, as “Alone At The Drive-In Movie” is transferred back to it’s original owner Kenickie (Tony Clarno) as a desperate ballad to the absent, potentially pregnant Rizzo (Jessica Diaz). Danny’s change is not about gaining Sandy’s acceptance, and is instead motivated by Danny’s desire to explore his potential.

(L to R) Bubba Weiler, Tyler Ravelson, Robert Colletti, Patrick De Nicola, Adrian Aguilar in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerPJ Paparelli excels at emphasizing the ways these characters leave their childhoods behind, and during Danny’s solo “How Big I’m Gonna Be,” Danny’s ambition forces him to leave the Burger Palace Boys to become the type of man that might be able to escape working in a factory with the same people’s he’s been surrounded by all his life. By the end of the show, each of the main characters has had to deal with an important teenage problem, and walks away having learned a valuable lesson. Frenchy (Jessie Fisher) finds out its hard to follow your dreams without a high school diploma and Rizzo learns the consequences of a broken condom, while Sandy and Danny show two opposite views of the same issue: changing for the one you love. These are the issues that teenagers have dealt with in the past and will continue to face in the future, an idea that is hammered home by Miss Lynch’s “In My Day,” which brings everything around full circle. Presiding over the reunion, Patricia Simcox Honeywell has become Miss Lynch, reminiscing about days gone by that seem like only yesterday.

The cast of The Original Grease is a remarkably gifted group of actors, whose singing and dancing prowess are matched by their comedic and dramatic chops. Diaz’s Rizzo has a nonchalant confidence that makes her a natural leader, and Diaz captures Rizzo’s struggle to keep up her tough appearance during the powerful “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Carol Rose’s sultry Marty is the sexy Pink Lady, and she nails “Freddy My Love,” the doo wop tribute to Marty’s Marine boyfriend during the Pink Ladies sleepover. Fisher’s clueless yet good-intentioned Frenchy is a constant source of comic relief along with the sloppy, silly Jan (Sadieh Rifal), who (L to R) Carol Rose, Jessie Fisher, Kelly Davis Wilson, Sadieh Rifai, Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beinerdevelops an adorable romance with Burger Palace Boy Roger (Rob Colletti).

Among the boys, Tony Clarno gives Kenickie a ferocity that burns through the comic playfulness of his friends, and the aggression he brings to the characters makes his drive-in breakdown an even stronger moment. Patrick De Nicola’s Sonny steals the show, though, as he constantly tries to assume an assertive role in the group but lacks the confidence and competence of alpha males Danny and Kenickie. Sonny’s attempts to be cool constantly blow up in his face, but once he brings Cha-Cha (Hannah Gomez) to the dance, Sonny goes from hilarious to gut-busting. The two have fantastic chemistry, and Gomez’s Cha-Cha is considerably different from the film version and all the better for it, and pairing her up with Sonny instead of Danny is another way that the stage version expands the world of these characters.

The Original Grease is what I’d like Grease to be all the time. These are characters that talk and act like real kids, with real problems that don’t always have easy answers. There are a few balance issues between the actors and the band that prevents the show from being perfect, but it is a must-see for all fans of the musical in all its iterations. At least for those that won’t mind the colorful language and provocative choreography, because those aren’t gear shifts the boys are grabbing at the end of “Greased Lightning.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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Review: Peter Pan (360 Entertainment & Broadway Chicago)

     

Now extended through July 10th!!


 

A gorgeous, high-tech canvas of oohs and ahhs

     
     

Emily Yetter (Tinkerbell), Scott Weston (Michael Darling), Ciaran Joyce (Peter Pan), Evelyn Hoskins (Wendy Darling) and Tom Larkin (John Darling) fly off to Neverland in a scene from "Peter Pan". Photo by Kevin Berne

      
threesixty entertainment presents
   
Peter Pan
   
Written by Sir James Barrie
adapted by Tanya Ronder
Directed by Ben Harrison
at Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago (map)
through July 10  |  tickets: $20-$125  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

It’s a gorgeous marriage of a circus tent, whose interior functions like a thrilling Omnimax screen in-the-round, and traditional theater magic, with trap doors and soaring flights that are more than fancy. This British-born production from 2009, which has already delighted Kensington Gardens and San Francisco, should have a happy home in Chicago all summer.

Wendy (Evelyn Hoskins) receives a gift from Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce). Photo by Kevin BerneIts in-the-found “panto” spectacle flourishes in a huge white tent pitched in the parking lot of the Chicago Tribune’s printing plant along the Chicago River. There the two and a half hour spectacle regales audiences with glorious 3D and 360-degree projections that, sweeping us along, let us fly above London, explore the jungles of Neverland, dive under the waters around Skull Island, soar to the riggings of Captain Hook’s ship, and tumble through the clouds, accompanied by Peter, Michael, John and Wendy as, harnessed to the apex of the big top, they fly effortlessly above us.

The story they tell, of course, is J.M. Barrie’s inexhaustible novella of the boy who never grew up and the lucky children (including the audience) who get caught up in his adventures with pirates, a crocodile, mermaids and, his greatest adversary, time itself. Peter’s saga inevitably takes us back to our childhood and, just as importantly, reminds us why we had to leave it.

Inspired by the doomed Davies brothers, Barrie wrote a Dorian Gray-like fantasy in which one of the beautiful boys would never age. Peter, a once-and-future serial abductor, recruits Wendy, his latest surrogate “mother,” along with her entranced brothers, to fly with him to Neverland and tell bedtime stories to the lost boys. But Captain Hook, a stunted adult who is just as lost, also wants a mother and will poison Peter and kill the boys to get Wendy.

At the same time playing at being grownups wears thin and Wendy, Michael, John and the orphan lads slowly feel the need to return to reality. For Peter “death would be an awfully big adventure.” For them life is challenge enough.

Faithful to every delightful word in Barrie’s source, Tanya Ronder’s adaptation, abetted by a serviceable score by Benjamin Wallfisch, employs wonderful puppets (the crocodile is every bit as big as its living relatives), highwire flying, swirling swordfights, a superb video backdrop and the audience’s own unleashed imagination to do full justice to this childhood classic.

     
Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce) shows Wendy (Evelyn Hoskins) how to fly in "Peter Pan". Photo by Kevin Berne Tinkerbell (Emily Yetter) and Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce) fly off above London back to Neverland. Photo by Kevin Berne
Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce) flies into the Darling family bedroom . Photo by Kevin Berne. Tinkerbell (Emily Yetter) flies above the audience. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Ciaran Joyce, a supple young British actor, makes Peter properly improper as he impetuously bursts from one adventure to another, as if boyhood had no expiration date (and he’s willed it so just to be sure). Just as exuberant but strategically maternal as required, Evelyn Hoskins is a very sensible Wendy, her prudence a counterweight to Peter’s other “girls,” Emily Yetter’s bratty and endearing Tinker Bell and Heidi Bueller’s curiously sensual Tiger Lily. Playing the most threatening (and thus mockable) adults, Steven Pacey is suitably silly, especially in his unseemly popularity competition for Peter. (Guess who gets voted off of this island?)

Lovely touches abound, like the Lost Boys’ indulging in a curious war dance about “killing grownups,” the mother-like puppet Neverbird (animated appropriately by Regina Leslie as Mrs. Darling), and a mermaid duo who try to kidnap Wendy for their own underwater purposes.

When the audience shouts out how much they believe In fairies, you sense the same splendid stagecraft that worked so well in 1904. But here state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology makes it even larger than life and as vibrant a fantasy as memory could make it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
      
  

The pirates of Peter Pan, with Wendy (Evelyn Hoskins) in the background. Photo by Kevin Berne

Peter Pan continues at the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago Ave., through summer 2011, with performances Wednesdays @ 2:00pm & 7:00pm; Thursdays-Fridays @ 7:00pm; Saturdays @ 2:00pm & 7:00pm and Sundays @ 1:00pm & 5:00pm. Tickets range from $20-$125, Complete ticket info here.

All photos by Kevin Berne

     
     

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Review: Spring Awakening (Broadway in Chicago)

     
     

A teenage love lust story

     
     

The Cast of "Spring Awakening" national tour. ©2010 Andy Snow

   
Broadway in Chicago presents
   
Spring Awakening
   
Book/Lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Directed by Michael Mayer and Bill T.Jones
at
Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 24 W. Randolph (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $27-$90  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Judy Bloom books, Playboy magazines, Spice channel, the Internet – the availability of sex-Ed resources has significantly multiplied over the past 100+ years.  Before the sexual revolution, past generations lived in ignorant misery. Broadway in Chicago presents the 8-time Tony Award winning Spring Awakening a new musical in town for a one week engagement.  Based on the controversial play produced by Frank Wedekind, teenagers come of age in 19th century Germany.  Wendall wonders about procreation.  Moritz worries about wet dreams.  Melchoir questions the punitive educational system within an oppressed society.  Along with the other village kids, lustful thoughts arouse more questions without answers.  Fornication and masturbation without education is groping in the dark for satisfaction.  When the boys and girls venture into the unknown, it takes a village to crush the buds of change.  Spring Awakening is a beautiful lust story!

Coby Getzug as Mortiz in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010 In 1891, Playwright Frank Wedekind shocked the world with a controversial play about sex. Not only did it discuss puberty, it illustrated youth in situations of homoeroticism, statutory rape, sado-masochism, abortion and even a circle jerk. In 2006, these harsh unmentionables of a sleepy stoic village became the focal point of a musical folk tale. Again the world is stunned! But this time, it’s for the captivating innocence sung by these ancestral youth. With book and lyrics by Steven Sater and a score composed by Duncan Sheik, the story takes on a whimsical quality. Despite the repressed society and mature sex topics, purity blossoms with a childlike to teenage fervor. The naïve inexperience is a sweet and sad struggle to grow up.

A rock band sets the right tone for adolescent rebellion in “Don’t Do Sadness” and “Totally Fucked.” The upbeat tempo matches the rage of both Cody Getzug (Moritz) and Christopher Wood (Melchoir). Within his frenzy of confusion, Getzug adds plenty of humor in hairstyles and nocturnal emissions. Wood angrily leads an uprising for an evolution. Wood escalates a beating with disturbing exhilaration. Later, his tender foreplay charms the pantaloons right off of Elizabeth Judd (Wendla). Wood and Judd indulge in a gentle but animalistic response to unknown sensations. Their intimacy is poignant for its natural body rhythms. Judd enchants as a fresh-faced young girl with misguided notions. Judd engages with a soulful, dreamy performance. The entire ensemble delights with playful and heartbreaking simplicity.

     
Daniel Plimpton as Ernst and Devon Stone as Hanschen in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Phil Martin Sarah Kleeman, Christopher Wood and Mark Poppleton in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010
Courtney Markowitz as Ilse in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010 Elizabeth Judd as Wendla and Christopher Wood as Melchior in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Andy Snow ©2010 Elizabeth Judd as Wendla in the national tour of "Spring Awakening" Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010

For this production, the audience extends onto the stage. These tickets are available for purchase. There are two sets of seats facing each other with the play’s action in-between. Ensemble members emerge from these seats to step into the action. The effect establishes the storytelling style and adds a personal touch. Spring Awakening stimulates as an old-fashion, age-of-innocence fascination.

SIDENOTE: For my own spring awakening, I saw this show the night after American Theatre Company’s The Original Grease. The similarities are obvious: sex and teenagers! The lingering impact is the evolution of thought from 19th century to 20th century. The 50+ years have empowered youth with knowledge of their bodies and authority. The exploration of both is handled with crude humor and little to no privacy. The 21st century musical investigating the Facebook 2.0 generation’s mating rituals will not shock or stun. It will traumatize!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010

Photos by Andy Snow and Phil Martin

Running Time:  Two hours and thirty minutes includes an intermission.    A 20th century man with some 21st century tendencies, Steve says simply, ‘Go See It!’